In the three years since Ramona Marshall's son was diagnosed with autism, the Southern California woman has seen the inside of a lot of school conference rooms, doctors' offices and therapists' rooms. But she thinks she may have found a single place where her son, now age five, can receive much of the care and attention he needs.
At the Kids Institute for Development & Advancement in Irvine, Calif., Marshall can relax and chat with other parents of kids with autism while her son receives a range of services to help him overcome speech and social deficits. Or she can work out in a gym in the facility designed to give parents a healthy way to alleviate some stress. Or she can consult with one of the therapists on staff.
The facility, one of the first in the country attempting to combine a wide range of autism services in one location, has made life a little easier for the Marshall family.
"I think we need places like this all over," Marshall says one afternoon while waiting for her son to finish a session with a therapist. "Families of kids with autism do enough driving as it is. This center is exciting for the kids; it's play-based, safe and clean. And for parents, it's like a support system."
Convenience for families and advancement for kids are the objectives at KiDA. Today one in every 88 kids has autism, and autism diagnosis rates gave risen more tahn 78 percent over the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The need for convenient, efficient and effective autism services has never been greater. But often that care is fragmented.
Earlier this year, KiDA opened a new 50,000-square-foot facility that offers multidisciplinary, comprehensive autism services under one roof. Kids can go to school, receive a range of one-on-one services, play in a gym, socialize and even see a neurologist -- sometimes all in one day. About 100 families are currently involved with the center.
"For a lot of families with kids on the autism spectrum, they have to drive around for medical appointments, therapies, education, family support," Kristen Coates, manager of administration at KiDA, told TakePart. "It's a lot of stress on the child and the family. It takes a toll. The founders wanted to see a place where everything came together under one roof now. They wanted to see a more integrated system that would really provide comprehensive services."
KiDA didn't begin with such a grand scheme, however. It was started in 2008 by a family with a child with autism who wanted a place for kids with the disorder to gather. In a 5,000-square-foot facility, a few families met to socialize and allow children with autism to play in a specially designed gym. Soon after, the group arranged to offer speech therapy on site.
"It was organically started and organically grown. It wasn't like we started it and said we're going to build this school and this center with all of these services," Coates says.
But the concept of having everything in one place developed, eventually leading the organization to its new facility. KiDA now offers schooling for children in grades Kindergarten through grade three, with plans to add more classes as the kids progress. Families can also book appointments with a variety of therapists -- speech, physical, occupational and music -- on-site in specially designed appointment rooms. A neurologist sees patients there on a part-time basis. The result is a cohesive, team approach to care.
"The professionals can all get together and say, what are you seeing? How can we more effectively treat the child?" Coates explains. "If a child is having a problem in the classroom, a neurologist can be summoned. The neurologist can come over and check out what is happening. The feedback loop is shorter."
The approach is not only convenient for families, it helps kids develop, she adds.
"They progress faster when collaboration by all of these professionals is possible -- the speech therapist, occupational therapist, neurologist," Coates says. "It's typically hard for all of these professionals to collaborate and brainstorm and provide that continuity of care."
Ramona Marshall says the emphasis on looking at the entire child -- not just his or her speech problems or behavior or medical issues -- produces big benefits.
"These kids get bombarded with services, but it's not always getting through," she says of the traditional, disjointed approach to autism care. "They are willing to look at different options for parents. Everything is here."
In addition to classrooms and therapy rooms, KiDA has an atrium for outdoor play and a 2,000-square-foot occupational therapy gym with a trapeze, obstacle course, climbing wall and other enticements to get kids moving. The hands-on kitchen has become a place for older children and teens to gather and socialize. Some of the teens cook meals together to practice independent living skills.
Another gym in the facility is devoted to workouts for older children and their parents, Coates says.
"The gym has a dual purpose," she says. "The parents are so busy taking care of their kids it's hard for them to find time to hit the gym or go out for a jog. We thought, let's give the parents an outlet to squeeze in a jog or lift some weights. That is a great stress reliever."
Everything inside the building is geared to the unique needs of children with autism and their families, she adds. In a couple of weeks, KiDA will have its fourth annual Halloween party. Halloween is normally a nightmare for parents with autism. Their kids, who often struggle with large crowds, noise and even uncomfortable clothing, simply can't tolerate typical Halloween activities. But at the KiDA Halloween party, people get it.
"The parents don't have to worry if their kids need a break or need help," Coates says. "We have therapists available. The kids don't have to wear costumes if they don't want to. Everyone understands. The families can feel comfortable and okay and welcome. They fit in. It works for them."
Paying for such conveniences can be an issue for some families. But KiDA administrators say they try to keep the prices for services competitive with other agencies. Many of the children who are schooled at KiDA receive outside funding set aside by the school district to pay for educational services. Some families' medical insurance policies cover other fees, such as medical care and therapeutic services.
The model has attracted attention, Coates says. But, so far, only a few other comprehensive autism service organizations have sprouted up around the country.
"Right now, this is unique," she says. "But we hope it can be a model for other companies to follow. It's for the benefit of the family and the child. There have been studies that confirm that this is a helpful approach for families to have integrated services."
What do you think should be done to improve the way autism services are delivered to children and their families? Let us know in the comments.
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Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.